14 September 2009

Biblical Inerrancy and the ELCA

Some of you might want to have a look at the interesting discussion here on the blog of a conservative ELCA pastor discussing Biblical inerrancy.

I understand the desire to resist pushing extra-confessional language (such as "inerrancy") as some kind of loyalty oath or magic bullet (can you just imagine the Pandora's Box of pages and pages of new bureaucratic confessions to be subscribed to with each passing year and political administration? It would take us two hours just to name all the confessional documents at our ordinations) . But on the other side of the coin, to allow for the Scriptures to be errant seems to me to be nothing less than a denial of their Pneumatic inspiration, and is ultimately a denial of Christ Himself. As Piepkorn wrote (I'm paraphrasing), we have no authority to require pastors to submit to the term "inerrancy" - but neither should we ever deny that the Bible is inerrant.

I do not see how conservative ELCA pastors can look upon recent decisions with horror and not connect the dots to the doctrine of an errant Bible. Bo Giertz drew this connection immediately after the Swedish Church (the ancestral church of many in the ELCA) began to "ordain" women. This issue is going to be a big stumblingblock for conservative ELCA pastors and congregations to come into the LCMS.

Either the Scriptures are inerrant or they are errant. Although the term "inerrant" does not appear in the confessions, similarly the terms "Trinity" and "Catholic" do not appear in the Bible and are nevertheless in our creeds. Something can certainly be true even if we don't require an oath to that truth.

I just don't see how helpful an errant Bible could ever be - especially given our Lord's qualification in John 3:12.

Is it possible to have inspiration and errancy at the same time?

--- Rev. Larry Beane


Rev. James Leistico said...

Yes, it is possible to have inspiration and errancy simultaneously. If I had a transcript of what I have said in confirmation classes, I could prove it.

It's possible, but not reliable, thus not helpful, as you point out.

Chris Jones said...

to allow for the Scriptures to be errant seems to me to be nothing less than a denial of their Pneumatic inspiration, and is ultimately a denial of Christ Himself ... Either the Scriptures are inerrant or they are errant.

Those of us who hesitate to confess that the Scriptures are "inerrant" do not hesitate because we believe the Scriptures to be "errant," but because the notion of "inerrancy" has come to include not only the confession that the Scriptures are true, but also a profoundly unCatholic (and therefore ultimately untrue) hermeneutic. The literalist hermeneutic that is inextricably associated with the word "inerrancy" is just as much a product of Enlightenment rationalism as the liberalism it seeks to combat. Both are alien to a truly traditional and Catholic engagement with the Scriptures.

When the Holy Scriptures are used as they are intended -- to be means of grace through the Church's liturgical ministry of Word and Sacrament, within her Tradition -- then the Scriptures are indeed inerrant. When, however, the Scriptures are ripped from that traditional and ecclesial context, and made the plaything of the fallen reason of man (according to a wooden literalism into the bargain), then "inerrant" is not the word I would use to describe the result.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Chris:

Whether or not people who don't share your hermeneutic use the term or not is really rather irrelevant. There are people I don't especially like or agree with who use the term "freedom of speech" - and yet that doesn't impel me to shun the terminology, or worse yet, argue against freedom of speech.

Either the Bible is errant or inerrant. It cannot be both or neither. Either it contains errors or it doesn't.

The fellow I'm debating with argues that the Bible contains errors contradictions, and factual faults - but that God uses this imperfect book anyway. I believe this is why the ELCA has deviated so far from Scripture. They have taken license, not merely hermeneutically, but in its literal written word.

Such a Bible is, I believe, useless. It is capable of being twisted to say anything: such as women may be pastors, homosexual behavior is not a sin, God used evolution to create the universe, and the resurrection is only a myth.

This line of reasoning (that the Bible is errant) seems to contradict inspiration - which my opponent accepts.

And James, I don't see your point. I don't think our confirmation materials and lectures - though certainly used by God even when we (*we*, not the Scriptures) err - are in the same category as Scripture.

I think Scripture is sui generis, as God's Word in its purity. Our preaching may have errors, our dogmatics texts may have errors - but if the Scriptures are errant then we cannot say they are God's Word, can we? At best they merely contain God's Word, or are poor human reflections of God's Word - either of which makes God's Word essentially unknowable and undiscernable.

Christopher Gillespie said...

First, I agree with your point. Holding to inerrancy de facto guards against endorsing sexuality.

Second, is this our strongest argument? Endorsing homosexuality has a more grievous error, that is, quoting David Scaer, "What do you think of Jesus?" Other ELCA errors including women's ordination and negligent communion examination ultimately betray a false Christology. Not "what would Jesus do" but rather who is Jesus.

Would you agree?

Rev. Robert Franck said...

It in inexplicable to me why so many ELCA pastors seem to have an automatic reaction to and rejection of the word, "inerrancy." It's almost like they have been given some kind of "shot" in seminary that causes an immediate and involuntary reaction to the word.

But what about the Preface to the Book of Concord, which speaks of the "infallible truth of God's Word"? Or Luther's plain declaration in the Large Catechism (Part IV, paragraph 57): "God's Word cannot err"?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Christopher G.:

I took every Scaer class I could. I wrote my thesis for him. I think his little book "What Do You Think of Jesus?" is brilliant. I consider Dr. Scaer to be a "synodical treasure" and one of our best theologians. I loved every minute in Dr. Scaer's classroom.

And so obviously, I don't discount your point at all about Scaer's great question, But I don't see why we need to play Scripture against Christology (not that Dr. Scaer was ever guilty of this).

The Word is infallible - the Word incarnatus and the word inscriptus. Ultimately, both are the same - the Word of God. Neither are errant. And nearly all that we know about Jesus we know from Scripture. If Scripture errs, then how do we know what it teaches about our Lord is true?

Again, our Lord does not divide Scripture from doctrine, nor does he sever "earthly things" in His Word from "heavenly things" - but rather supports the latter with the former (John 3:12).

I think we need to confess what is true regardless of whether or not this truth or that truth is the best argument against this or that. It's just my observation that church bodies that surrender inerrancy also seem to become lax on gender issues. It's just a fact.

To quote the good doctor: "Gentlemen, we must destroy Lutheranism before it destroys us." :-)

Christopher Gillespie said...

Fr. Hollywood,

No fear or need to defend your position. I didn't articulate well. What I meant to say was something along the lines of not ending the argument with inerrancy but rather continuing forward to the Christological implications.

I intended to caution against the innerancy-then-proof-text method (oops, another Scaer rant.) While sufficient for those of orthodoxy, I wonder for the ELCA if we really need to push it all the way to the cross and resurrection, due to their heterodoxy?

Again, I spoke poorly. With such blatant rejection of the Scriptures, the error of Jesus is the greatest and perhaps the most convincing (if not convicting) of their fault.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The reason why (in my opinion) that many folks wish to avoid the word inerrancy is because it is embarassing. You can't just hold to abstract ideas. . . but you have to say, "Um, yes, I hold that the flood happened. Yes, there was some big old fish and it swallowed a person." All the things that "sophisticated" people don't believe.

Hence - you make a separation - there are errors, the are perhaps embellishments, but at least the message is spot on.

However, that ends up opening a whole can of worms that leads to a rather warm place in some sort of wicker contraption.

As we are quoting Scaer, I remember him speaking (ironically) about the 50s and this type of attitude saying, "It was great, you could practice all sorts of higher Criticism and still be confessional." That's the division folks in the ELCA tried to take. . . and it's really, really hard to keep a firm stance when you've undercut your foundation.

To be charitable, they aren't necessarily ashamed of Christ -- just the history presented in Scripture.

Mike Keith said...

Whether or not we should use the term inerrant is debateable I suppose. However, as a student at a Concordia College I was taught a higher critical approach to the Scriptures. I was taught to question the veracity of some of what I read in the Bible. As a naive student I didn't know any better - I mean these were theologians of our church right? It nearly destroyed my faith. It is soul destroying stuff.

I don't care if we use the term inerrant - but without an inerrant Word - we have nothing - which is what much of mainline protestantism now has.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

In The Inspiration of Scripture, Robert Preus points out that the Lutheran dogmaticians' concept of "inerrancy" applies only to the original autographs, thus allowing for the fact that various manuscripts have minor errors and contradictions (not to mention the errors of various modern language translations).

This seems like an important point to admit to some of those who have a problem with inerrancy. While we allow for the fact that various manuscripts have minor errors, the vast majority of these "errors" (typos, if you will) are minor and have no effect on the infallibility of Scripture.

The reason I think this is important is that some of those who deny inerrancy appear to mistakenly take the existence of minor variations in manuscripts as proof that Scripture is "errant." Perhaps if they can see how to maintain the doctrine of inerrancy in spite of this, they can be brought back to the proper doctrine of Scripture.

I would also like to point out, again, that a denial of inerrancy is only part of the problem with modern theology. As we have discussed at length in recent threads here on this blog, there is also a crisis of epistemology that has affected all branches of Christianity during this modern age, and which has led (and continues to lead) to serious doctrinal errors within our own "conservative" synod, even though we maintain the inerrancy of Scripture.

Paul said...

just a small point I haven't yet seen addressed...the Bible is the book of the Church, the Church is the body of Christ of which He is the Head, and we confess in the creed that we believe in "unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam" ergo I believe the Scriptures because I believe in Christ and in His body the Church. What we confess of one applies to the other.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Paul:

This is an excellent point, thank you!

This is how it is that the inspired Word of God - which is without error (however we wish to word it) - can be misinterpreted by those outside the Church. For within the Church, we have the Holy Spirit's guidance as well as the epistemology (thank you Dr. H.) to be able to rightly read and interpret the Scriptures.

Unbelievers and cult members can devoutly read the Word of God and yet at the same time reject the Word of God in their misinterpretation (or perhaps more accurately, their malinterpretation).

The first article of the Rule of the Society of St. Polycarp confesses Scripture this way:

1. Members of the Society confess Holy Scripture to be "the pure, clear fountain of Israel" and also "the one true guiding principle," i.e., the sole norm or "judge, rule, and guiding principle" of the same (FC Ep. Comprehensive Summary, 7; FC SD Comprehensive Summary, 3). We rejoice in the tradition of the Holy Doctors and Fathers of the Church, in whom Christ kept His promise that "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against (My Church)" (Mt 16:18), so that the Lutheran confessors could say that "the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith" (AC Preface to XXII, 1, Latin). We reject all methods of interpretation that seek to understand the meaning of Scripture apart from the guidance of the Church, through which God gave us the Scriptures.

Thus Scripture is what it is (God's Word). It does not err. And yet, when read by those outside the Church, false conclusions are certain to be drawn. This is not because Scripture is faulty, but rather because the mind of the unbelievers are not capable of a right interpretation.

It would be like placing a Bible in Mandarin in front of someone who only reads English and expecting them to benefit from reading it.

Bror Erickson said...

I don't know what more I would have to say in this matter. Except that inerrency is really only half the battle inside the church. There are plenty of people who hold to inerrency, and still couldn't give two figs as to what it says, say where the sacraments are concerned. That is, they willfully ignore what this inerrant word says.
Also, I don't think you have to be "inside" the church to be convicted by the word of God, brought to repentance and faith. It is possible, to read say, The Gospel of John, and come to faith and then be brought into the church. And it is possible to be a believer in Jesus Christ and come to some very bad interpretations of scripture, as we see with Baptists and their ilk.

Bror Erickson said...

I also, while holding that canonical scripture is the word of God, have a hard time equating the antilegoumena as being the word of God. And choke after reading James in the epistle lesson, saying "This is the word of God." I suppose that is a different subject altogether, but somewhat related.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Bror:

I think these are two separate issues.

Baptists err not in holding to an errant Bible, but rather in their reading of it apart from the creeds and confessions of the historic Church. It's not the Bible that they think has erred, but rather the Church Catholic as interpreter of the Bible.

The ELCA (which teaches justification by grace and does not deny the efficacy of the sacraments) errs differently, in holding to an errant Bible - which is essentially license to twist it into saying anything.

I never said that inerrancy is the entire battle in the church. But I think it is the problem for Lutherans who "ordain" women and sanction "gay marriage." Bishop Giertz (while I doubt that he used the word "inerrancy") raised this objection over priestesses in the Church of Sweden. He saw it immediately and clearly as a problem with submission to the Bible as the Word of God.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Bror:

The issue of the antilegomena is a really interesting one. It is an example where "Sola Scriptura" is helpless. There is no Scripturally mandated table of contents. Our Confessions even skirt the issue of canonicity, and even quote the Apocrypha in places (e.g. calling 2 Maccabees "Scripture" in Ap 21:9, while not accepting this Scripture as doctrinally authoritative on its own).

In determining what is canonical, we are relying on the collective wisdom (consensus) of the Church. Obviously, that consensus is not universal, but is stronger regarding, say, Luke's Gospel, than it is Hebrews, Psalm 151, Bel and the Dragon, or even the Didache (which was treated as Scripture by some early churches).

A few weeks ago, I included a reading from Ecclesiasticus as the traditional OT reading for the Feast of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (I wish we had a lectionary for LSB commemorations!) - as did many early Lutheran lectionaries. I suppose any objection to using the Apocrypha in our churches could equally be made regarding the Epistle of James, Hebrews, Revelation, etc.

And yet, we do seem to have a latter-day consensus of sorts about the antilegomena being the Word of God and canonical Scripture - even if we shy from drawing doctrine from them exclusively.

Great topic for further discussion!

SKPeterson said...

I have a question. I've been reading through Augustine's Confessions and he has a section on Interpretation of Scripture where he contrasts several readings/interpretations of the creation. I have only read through this quickly once, so I ahven't fully followed Augustine's line of reasoning. Since Augustine is generally held to comport quite nicely with Lutheran doctrine, is his view of biblical interpretation as outlined in Confessions akin to the traditional Lutheran view? Is Augustine's view the traditional Catholic view? I do know that Augustine and Jerome sparred cordially over Scripture, translation and content, but I'm not sure how this has played over the centuries. I've also recently finished Philip Jenkins "The Lost History of Christianity" in which he describes the course of Christian development outside the old Roman Empire (East and West). In the book he describes how, in contrast to Ehrman, Pagels, et al, the far eastern churches were even more conservative in their scriptural canon, but since much of their daily conversing, liturgy and writings were in Syriac/Aramaic they actually preserved very much the original scriptural integrity of the earliest gospels and epistles, all of which were part of their "canon" in common with the Roman churches. The take-away: ancient Scripture was far more uniform, agreed-upon and likely to be accurate than revisionists would care to admit.

Extollager said...

Father Hollywood wrote, "It is an example where 'Sola Scriptura' is helpless. There is no Scripturally mandated table of contents."

I would like to see more discussion of this point!

Dale J. Nelson, layman, Mayville. North Dakota

Chris Jones said...

Mr Nelson,

Fr Hollywood's "example" is the Achilles' heel of Sola Scriptura. For if the "table of contents" is extra-Scriptural and thus not within the purview of Sola Scriptura, that is because the standard by which the "table of contents" was recognized -- the "canon of truth" as St Irenaeus called it -- is itself extra-Scriptural.

That "canon of truth" is not only the rule by which the "table of contents" was recognized by the Church, it is, and remains, the rule by which the Scriptures must be read. Without that canon, Sola Scriptura inevitably leads to the riot of heterodoxies and sects among those who claim to follow Sola Scriptura.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Chris:

And obviously, "sola scriptura" is understood differently by different confessions.

I'm always frustrated when we are tarbrushed with the Reformed and Neo-Evangelicals - whose understanding of "sola scriptura" is radically different than ours.

It's all in what "sola" really means.

Some churches interpret the "sola" to the point where they only allow the Psalms to be sung in church - after all, any other hymns in the service would violate "sola scriptura," right?

There are also those who refuse to accept the creeds, as that violates the "sola" in their interpretation.

We Lutherans see Scripture as the only ("sola") "norming norm" or norming canon of the faith. Any "normed norm" or other canon is subordinate to scripture.

In other words, scripture is the "only" infallible teaching to which we must submit. We do not submit to popes and councils (as Luther pointed out, they err and even contradict themselves) as we do Scripture. But we do submit to pastors and ecclesiastical rules which themselves submit to Scripture.

The canon of Scripture itself is something that has been received by the apostles and delivered to us (as Paul writes concerning the Words of Institution of the Eucharist in 1 Cor 11:23).

The Lord in His wisdom did not insert the table of contents into the canon. He has indeed given the Church the Holy Spirit to discern and confess the canon. But we don't believe the Lord has given the Church the ability to contradict, override, or ignore the Bible - as was being done at the time of the Reformation (which precipitated the Reformation) and is being done by modern Lutherans themselves who reject the parts of Scripture they don't like.

Great discussion!

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Rev. Bror Erickson wrote: "[I] choke after reading James in the epistle lesson, saying 'This is the word of God.'"

Correct me if I am wrong, but I assume you are expressing reluctance in identifying James 2:24 in particular as the Word of God.

This concerns me. Does Lutheran theology not allow for the assertion made in James 2:24? Is there difficulty in understanding that there is no conflict between this teaching on justification by James and those we hear from Paul?

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Isn't the development of the canon akin to the "development of doctrine" which, by necessity, occurred in the church from the earliest times in response to heresy?

As doctrine developed, did it not then become easier to identify that small minority of writings which containing statements contradicting the more developed understanding of orthodox doctrine which is confirmed without conflict in what thus became the canon?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


I would suggest a slightly different view of history - the Church consistently rejected the large number of spurious, false gospels the like -- and over the course of time the Church determined that many books which were pious and highly beloved were not to the same standard of Scripture - so while folks might love Shepherd of Hermas or 1 Clement - and there might be fantastic theology, we won't accord it the same trust that we do the books that are "Scripture".

It wasn't just a matter of "these books are right - these few are wrong". Rather, it was more of "there's a lot of junk out there. . . but these books are safe. . . but even among these books that are pretty good, only these are the ones that are Scripture." It's not as though folks said, "Ooops, I don't like this book anymore, let's toss it."

Much of this comes to the fore in the 4th Century when Christians all over the place can start comparing what they all have with each other more easily. . . and if you've been digging a book that no one else has, perhaps you ought to rethink how you view that book.

solarblogger said...

Does Lutheran theology not allow for the assertion made in James 2:24?

Antilegoumenal books may be used, but they cannot be the sole source of doctrine. Hence, James 2:24 could be used if read compatibly with the other books. Now, most admit that readings of books must be harmonized. But a harmonization may favor one book or the other. So I would suggest that we can accept the teaching of James 2:24 if we can find a reading compatible with what is taught elsewhere. But we should not shade our readings of the other books to fit James.

The reason many choke on James is that while they may accept the harmonized readings many offer as good theology, they find it does not sound like a natural reading of James.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Thanks. That helps.

Fr. Timothy D. May, SSP said...

James 2:24 may be understood in light of James 2:26.

It is not just James. One can find faith and (good) works together throughout the Scripture, even in Paul. Likewise, justification cannot be understood (or be possible) without Christ.

However, I do not think it is so much James that people choke on, as much as Luther did, but James 2:26 (spirit and body together). The body without the spirit is dead. This is true also of Christology (true Man, true God). However, it seems, when we speak of Christ, that somehow we are considered opposed to good works on the one hand and justification on the other. Rather it is Christ who does the good works in us and Christ who justifies. Then too when we look at the Scriptures we find Christ.

Regarding "Sola Scriptura" there really is no such thing. Even the approach that is against "Church" and her traditions (pick and choose your least favorite) will not separate Scripture from "me." This route, apart from the Church, leads to the multiplication of denominations and sects. Another route replaces the Church as guide with the findings of the social sciences to help in the interpretation of Scripture, sometimes swallowing both the philosophy and methods together and losing Scripture in the process (traditions of man?). The question is not so much whether Scripture is alone or not but who or what guides the interpretation. I am not sure Luther argued for a "Luther alone" interpretation of Scripture.

Also, I would agree with an earlier comment that the question of inerrancy is more a question of the "Enlightenment" than anything else, an avoiding of the Catholic, traditional and ecclesial context.

Extollager said...

Please continue! The comments (about the lack of a "table of contents" given by inspiration, etc.) is interesting.

Mike Keith said...

An example from a real life conversation regarding Baptism between me and an Alliance Pastor:

Alliance Pastor: I don't believe in infant baptism because it is not in the Bible. I only believe what is in the Bible.

Me: But we know from history that infant baptism was the practice of the Church and was hardly questioned until the 16th Century and certainly does not contradict anything in the Bible.

Alliance Pastor: But it is not in the Bible. If it is not in the Bible I don't believe it!

Me: How many books are in the Bible?

Alliance Pastor: 66!

Me: Where in the Bible does it tell you how many books are in the Bible?

Alliance Pastor: Silence......